Making classical music accessible to pupils

John Kelleher

John Kelleher is a freelance education consultant specialising in music and music technology.  He provides advice, training and resources for music teachers, and recently helped review and develop the Sinfini for Schools free teaching resources for secondary schools. Before moving into consultancy work, John was part of the senior leadership team and Director of Music at a London secondary school. 

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Originally published on 7th June 2015 Originally published on 7th June 2015

At the time of writing, the annual BBC Proms season is now underway, an eight week celebration of music concerts, talks, workshops, family events and more. This year to mark the opening pupils from four primary schools have been invited to take part in two Proms concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, celebrating the first year of BBC Ten Pieces.

Since the Ten Pieces initiative launched last October, children in primary schools across the UK have been working on their own creative responses to music by Beethoven, Britten, Mozart, Mussorgsky and others, with the help of BBC ensembles.

This got me thinking about how we sustain this interest once young people reach secondary school. What approaches in the music classroom will encourage older students to increase their enjoyment of classical and the subject more widely?

I’ve pulled together some key teaching tips to keep top-of-mind:

Select repertoire that students like and can identify with

When it comes to performing less familiar pieces, find a starting point that your students can be passionate about to the extent that they choose to broaden their musical horizons and trust the teacher’s judgement. Celebrate their music tastes against the more classical traditions like the Proms and opera. Let them see that audience participation is not limited to the modern music festivals of today but a great part of our musical history.

Embrace a practical approach to music education

As music teachers we should seek to engage students in making music of all types, classical music included. Music lessons need not be limited to listening activities and ‘music appreciation’. Introduce your students to all the instruments you can find and allow them to improvise and figure out how to play it themselves.

Try classroom workshopping

The beauty of an approach such as large group composition lies in the fact that the material itself is of less importance than the method of teaching. Working as a whole class to learn how to play Ravel’s Bolero becomes just as accessible as learning to play Pharrell’s Happy. If students are actively engaged in the process of performing the music they will quickly see the benefit of focused listening in order to better play their part.

Anyone who has ever taken part in ensemble music making will surely be able to tell you just how transformative an experience it can be. Performing as part of a large group is great fun. Singing Bizet’s Toreador’s Song alongside twenty of your peers will give you the same buzz as singing Hey Jude. It’s not the repertoire, style or genre that counts, it’s the very act of creating something new.

Make it digital

Students today are growing up in a digital era, so the music classroom should reflect this. Film is a great way to engage students with the process of creating and using music for dramatic effect. Equally, podcasting is useful to get students evaluating their own progress and performances and sharing them with each other online.

Do you use any of these tactics in your music classroom? Let us know in the comments!

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